I am moved to be here with you tonight. And I’m eager to begin our conversation.
As the theme for my reflection, I’ve chosen a passage from the Book of Lamentations. As you know, this book contains some of the Bible’s most beautiful poetry — and some of the saddest poetry in all of human literature.
These laments were composed in the time of the exile, after the fall of Jerusalem and the sacking of the Temple. They are not easy to read. They speak to us in the universal voice of human suffering.
And yet, in the midst of these poems of mourning and loss, we find these beautiful words of hope:
The kindness of the Lord has not ended.
His mercies are not spent. ….
The Lord is good to those who trust in him,
to the one who seeks him.
These words for me reflect the hope of the Jewish people — their faith in the one true and living God. This faith — which is the faith of the Jewish Bible — is the foundation of the Christian faith. So I thought this passage would be a good starting point for thinking about our friendship and dialogue.
Catholics revere the Jewish people as God’s elect — the people he formed for himself, chosen to declare his praise. We know that to you “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship, and the promises.” We know that God’s gift and his calling are never revoked.
Catholics follow Jesus — a son of Abraham from the house of David; who in his day was called “Rabbi” and “Teacher.” Catholics believe that through Jesus we have come to share your faith in the one true God. Through Jesus, we believe we have come to share your hope in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — although we understand our hope in different ways.
The long history of Catholics and Jews has been complicated and filled with misunderstandings, conflicts, tragedies and sadly, sometimes with violence.
Thanks be to God, we can meet tonight — in this beautiful house of worship — and speak together as friends.
Not as friends who have decided to forget the past. But as friends who refuse to be imprisoned by the past. We are instead, as the prophet once said, “prisoners of hope.” Prisoners of our hope in the Lord and his faithful care.
My friends, our relationship and dialogue must be based on this hope that we share and on our common spiritual heritage.
That doesn’t mean that our differences don’t matter. But it means that as friends, we need to respect each other’s beliefs so much that we take our differences seriously. It means that as friends we need to commit ourselves to studying those differences — always with the desire of helping each other to grow in faith and service to God.
I’ve always liked what Rabbi Jacob Neusner said in his little book, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. He said our dialogue should try to make “Christians better Christians, Jews better Jews, and to sharpen the lines of difference — so opening a new path of religious dialogue for an irenic future.”
But tonight I don’t want to talk about the lines of difference between us. Instead I want to talk with you about what I see as our common mission.
As I see it, Judaism and Catholicism are both religions of witness. For Catholics and Jews, faith in God means that we have a vocation and a mission — a calling to serve God by our lives. A calling to sanctify his Name. A calling to be God’s partner in establishing his Kingdom in creation.
Jesus calls Christians to be his “witnesses.” To spread his Gospel to the ends of the earth and to make disciples of all nations. By her election, Israel is given a similar vocation. We hear this especially in Isaiah’s prophecies.
“You are my witnesses,” says the Lord.
“And my servant whom I have chosen.”
He who formed me in the womb to be his servant … says …
“I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
So Jews and Christians share this duty — to be God’s servants and witnesses in the world. In everything we do. In our homes and in society. By our prayer and by our good works.
Now, the world we’re living in is changing. As we’re all aware, American society — along with the other societies in the West — is becoming highly secularized. The memory of God has already faded for many people. New generations are growing up without any religion. We are fast becoming a society of “practical atheists.” That’s not a criticism. It’s a description of reality.
This is the challenge to our witness as believers. We’re living in a society where more and more of our neighbors go through their daily lives without even thinking about God. They live as if there is no God, or as if his existence doesn’t make any difference.
But we’re coming to realize that we can’t live without God — not as individuals and not as a society. We’re finding out that when we lose our sense of God, we lose the “thread” that holds our lives together. We lose the answers to the questions that help us make sense of the world: What kind of person should I be? Why should I be good? What should I believe in? What should I be living for — and why?
Many of the elites in our culture today would argue that there are no true answers to these questions — just different opinions, beliefs and preferences. But we know that’s not true. We know people need those answers. Without those answers we don’t know anymore what makes a human being human.
A generation ago, the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel warned:
“The future of the human species depends upon our degree of reverence for the individual man. And the strength and validity of that reverence depend upon our faith in God’s concern for man. … Only if there is a God who cares, a God to whom the life of every individual is an event — and not only a part of an infinite process — can our sense of the sanctity and preciousness of the individual man be maintained.”
Rabbi Heschel was right. We see it everywhere in our society today. When we forget God, we lose our reverence for the human person. When we stop believing that God cares, we stop caring for our neighbors.
We all heard that sad story last month about the mental hospital that was giving patients one-way bus tickets and essentially dumping them on the streets to fend for themselves. That’s one sign that we’ve lost our reverence for the individual. But we could look at the news on any given day — all the meanness; all the casual violence. We could talk about abortion or euthanasia or the human rights tragedy of our failed immigration policies. We could talk about the confusion in our society over marriage, the family and sexuality. We could talk about the crazy consumerism of our economy; or the worlds that divide the rich and poor here in our city and everywhere else.
These are all signs and symptoms. They point us back to the need for God. They point us back to our responsibility as believers.
The world is waiting for our witness, my friends. The world is waiting for the presence of God to return. But God can only return through us — by way of our witness. The world will not be saved by science or information or commerce or war. The world will be saved through the witness of men and women of faith.
People of faith must be the “soul” of our society and the voice for God and conscience — Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others. But in a special way, God has entrusted us — Jews and Catholics — with the beautiful truth that the human person is sacred. That every man and woman is created in the image and likeness of God.
You know the beautiful Midrash that says: “A procession of angels pass before a human being wherever he or she goes, proclaiming, Make way for the image of God!”
The men and women of our times need to hear this good news. They need to know that angels go before us. They need to know that they are God’s image and that everyone they meet is God’s image, too. We need to be the ones who tell them that their lives are not trivial. That humans are not just random beings, contingent products of evolution, going through life with no “why” or reason.
Our task in this moment, as I see it, is to restore this appreciation of the sacred image of the human person. We need to make this truth the substance of our preaching, our religious education, our work for justice. We need to bring this truth into our homes and neighborhoods. We need to proclaim to our society what the Torah and the New Testament teach — that each human person comes from the loving thought of God. That we are all made for holiness. That we are made to live as God’s image in the world.
In our faith traditions, we believe that our lives are like works of art that we are co-creating with God. By his grace and by his Law, God wants to make each of us more like him, day by day. This is the beautiful, transcendent destiny of every human person. This is the path — the path of walking with God — that leads to the fullness of life.
So we need to help our neighbors to see that all our lives are God’s project. God’s work of art. We need to help our brothers and sisters to walk with God, to follow his teaching and example.
My friends, I’m convinced that this truth about the sacred image and destiny of the human person holds the key to the rebirth of charity and compassion in our society.
Our traditions share a beautiful understanding — that the worship we owe to God demands that we revere the image of God that we find in our neighbor.
God calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. But more than that, he calls us to love our neighbor as an icon of his presence and love. The Proverb tells us:
He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker;
He who is kind to the needy honors Him.
Jesus commands this same mercy for the poor and he exposes the excuses of our false piety. Jesus reminds us: we only love God as much as we love the poor one, the stranger, the prisoner, and the sick. We can’t pretend to love the God we don’t see, if we don’t love the neighbor we can see.
Friends, we need to spread this awareness of the sanctity and dignity of the human person. Not only in our ministries and programs. Not only in our homes. But throughout our society. We need to remind our civic leaders that the people they serve are the image of God, that each one of them has a great dignity and a great destiny. We need to remind everyone of what St. Paul called “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
If we all lived with this awareness, it would change the way we think about our life together in this city and in this country.
We would fight poverty because it insults the dignity of the person created in God’s image. We would fight for greater sharing of our resources because we have a duty to help the weak who are called to holiness and heaven. We would fight corruption because our God calls us to holiness and purity. We would work for peace in our streets and better schools because only this is worthy of the children of God.
Let me conclude with a story from your tradition.
The story goes that a skeptic came to the Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotz and began to mock him.
“I hear you can perform miracles,” the skeptic said.
“Yes I can,” replied the Rabbi. “Then show me one,” said the skeptic.
“Show me how you resurrect the dead.”
The Rabbi replied again, “I’d prefer to show you how I can resurrect the living.”
My friends, this is our task, as believers in a time of unbelief. Our God is calling us to resurrect the living. He is calling us to remind our neighbors of the sanctity and great dignity of their lives. He is calling us to be his witnesses.
We have to answer his call — by really living what we believe and sharing what we believe with others. We have great news to tell them — that God is alive and he’s still at work in our world and in our lives. That his kindness has not ended. That his mercies are not spent.
Thank you for listening. I look forward to our conversation.